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Sue Legg recently retired as education director of the Florida League of Women Voters. She was assessment and evaluation contractor for the Fl. DOE for twenty years while on the faculty at the University of Florida. At my request, she wrote a four-part series reflecting on School Choice in Florida after 20 years.
Twenty years later: Who Benefits, Not Schools!
Florida’s Constitution mandates that the state shall make ‘adequate provision for all students to access a uniform, safe, secure, efficient and high-quality system of free public schools.
The strategies on how to implement or circumvent these values result in constant lawsuits…at least five in the last two years alone. The arguments are not new: civil rights, funding, local vs. state control, and accountability. One might ask: Who benefits in a system that generates so much conflict? Politicians and profiteers, but not the public may well be the answer.
Political Cronyism and Conflict of Interest.
Charter supporters use money and influence to affect policy outcomes. According to Integrity Florida, $2,651,639 was spent on committee and campaign contributions in 2016 alone. Major donors include John Kirtley, who heads Florida Federation for Children and is also chair of Step Up for Students (which distributes a billion dollars in corporate tax credit scholarships to private schools). All Children Matters, run by Betsy DeVos, gave over $4 million to Florida political committees between 2004 and 2010. The Walton family gave over $7 million between 2008 and 2016 to Florida’s All Children Matter. Large contributions by the Waltons, John Kirtley, CSUSA, Academica, Gary Chartrand (a member of the State Board of Education) and others were also made to Kirtley’s Florida Federation for Children. In addition, for profit charters have spent over $8 million in lobbying in Tallahassee. Former Governor Jeb Bush’s foundation ExcelinEd, supports the spread of pro-choice policies in 38 states.
Conflict of interest claims in the Florida legislature have been made against current and former legislators including Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran; legislators Manny Diaz, Eric Fresen (recently found guilty of tax evasion), Seth McKeel, House Education Chair Michael Bileca, Senators John Legg, Anitere Flores, Kelli Stargel, and Ralph Arza (who was forced to resign for other reasons). They have personal ties to the charter industry and held important education committee leadership roles.
The A.I.R. testing company received a six-year $220 million contract for the Florida state assessment exams. This contract does not include the mandatory End of Course exams required in high school subjects, the kindergarten readiness test, the English Language Learner test, or the 50 teacher certification tests and the principals’ leadership exam. Add to this cost was the technical debacle resulting from a law requiring all tests to be administered online. Districts did not have the bandwidth.
Private and Charter Schools Expansion.
The Florida tax credit scholarships (FTC) to private schools no longer serves only low-income families. Income eligibility has risen to $63,000 for partial stipends. Funding is increased by 25% per year, but the corporate tax revenue to support them runs afoul of the governor’s agenda to reduce taxes. As a compromise, in 2018 a sales tax ‘donation’ to private schools for new car owners was approved for students with approved claims of being bullied. Students with disabilities may qualify for MacKay scholarships to private schools which may have no qualified teachers to serve them. Parents whose children have severe disabilities are given a stipend and search on their own for assistance.